Using Social Media to Create a “Sense of Community”

Below is a blog post that I wrote as part of an assignment for UMUC’s class OMDE 603 Technology in Distance Education & E-learning.  See the original post here. defines community in three ways: as “a united body of individuals,” as “an interacting population…in a common location,” and as “a body of persons of common…interests scattered through a larger society.” Tom Adamski, former CEO of Rosetta, describes communities in his TEDx talk (2012) as “an organic construct” that is “built off of the elements of our human nature: our wants, our desires, our psyche.”

Communities are built naturally in a traditional education setting. Students interact face-to-face with other students in their classes and on campus. As they get to know their peers, they identify and connect with people with interests, challenges, and goals similar to themselves. Students can then turn to these connections for support and encouragement throughout the completion of their program and beyond.

These communities also serve as reminders that their studies should be a high priority. In a tight-knit class community, the absence of a student is not only noted by a professor but also by their peers. In classes where verbal discourse is encouraged or required, students must stay engaged in class conversation and up-to-date with the course materials or risk possible public humiliation.

Online education, unfortunately, does not offer students the same access to their peers as in traditional education. Communication is largely asynchronous. Students also do not have easy access to the personal characteristics of their classmates: their age, background, personality, interests, sense of humor, etc. This makes it incredibly difficult for students to connect and form communities in meaningful ways and that give them support (moral or otherwise) in their studies.

In cases where online classrooms fail to give students a sense of community, social media may be utilized to assist students with connecting with their classmates. Because communities are formed by individuals meeting in a common location, institutions can assist students in building communities by dictating the common ground where they will exist: Facebook, Google+, a university sponsored social media platform, etc. Profile features, similar to those found in Facebook, can be utilized to assist students with locating peers with similar interests and backgrounds (Ren et al, 2012). Centralized, free, and open discussion forums can be utilized to give students a common ground to meet and communicate.

Not all online students are comfortable with or have experience using social media. Instructors can further assist with institution-wide endeavors to build online student community through helping students to construct online communication literacy and social media skills.’s 2010 blog post 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom contains a detailed list of activities instructors can add to their curriculum/coursework to assist students in building these skills.

Online communities have the potential to encourage student engagement and prevent attrition in online distance education programs. However, in order to take advantage of this potential, institutions must commit to offering students a virtual common ground to meet, as well as encourage students to use it. At the same time, because communities are built organically, institutions must allow students the personal space to use the virtual common ground and to make it their own. If institutions force students to participate in communities that they (the institution) feels is most necessary and beneficial, they risk low student engagement.


Adamski, T. (2012, December 26). Community – Making an old concept new [Video file]. Retrieved from

Community. 2014. In Retrieved October 23, 2014, Retrieved from (2010, May 4). 100 Inspiring Ways to Use Social Media In the Classroom [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Ren, Y. et al. (2012). Building member attachment in online communities: applying theories of group identity and interpersonal bonds. MIS Quarterly, 36(3), 841-864. Retrieved from


Using Facebook Groups to Promote Online Learning Communities

Below is a paper that I wrote for UMUC’s class OMDE 603 Technology in Distance Education & E-learning.  It includes a brief account of the use of Facebook groups to unite stand up paddlers as they train and complete paddle-related challenges asynchronously.  


Using Facebook Groups to Promote Online Learning Communities


Throughout distance education’s history, much research has been devoted to investigating the causes of and possible solutions for student drop out in asynchronous courses (Brindley, 1995, p. 23).  In distance education, the geographical separation between students and the instructor, as well as the asynchronous interaction, causes some students to feel isolated and alone (LaPadula, 2003, p. 120).  This isolation may cause students to feel unsupported or to deprioritize their learning for face-to-face community responsibilities (family, work, church, etc) that seem more immediately pressing.  A sense of community in needed in online classes to help students feel more connected to their classmates, instructors, and academic program (Moore, 2014, p. 20). Students may find that a tangible connection to their learning community is necessary to provide them with the accountability framework they need to keep them motivated and engaged.

This paper examines the use of Facebook’s group feature to support asynchronous learning communities.  It discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using Facebook groups for formal distance learning, as well as the success of two non-academic learning communities.


Advantages of Using Facebook Groups for Distance Learning

Some distance education institutions have already begun to experiment with using Facebook groups in various capacities, including using them to create student communities (Poellhuber & Anderson, 2011, p. 103) and as the online platform for distance learning.  In a case study by Wang et al (as cited in Meishar-Tal et al, 2012), a Facebook group was used to host an online class.  Wang et al found that student discussion in Facebook was significantly higher (400%) than in the control formal online classroom (p. 39).

Social media, particularly Facebook, is uniquely able to provide students with an insight into their community.  Through using Facebook’s profile features, students can review and compare themselves with the backgrounds and circumstances of their classmates.  Sharing common interests and goals can make students feel more comfortable with, and eager to participate in, their learning community (Poellhuber & Anderson, 2011, p. 105).

The Facebook group feature is designed to encourage participation.  Content on the group’s “wall” is organized at first chronologically, and then may be moved to the top of the list (a more visible location) if members comment on or like it.  This unique page organization encourages further discussion of topics that have proven popular with other members, thus seeking to stimulate and boost member participation in the group.

Other benefits of using Facebook include that it is relatively easy to use and widely available to the public.  At this time, there is no cost for learners or administrators to use the group feature.  Facebook also requires little to no maintenance on behalf of the distance education institution (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, p. 36-39).

Challenges Regarding Facebook

Unfortunately, because Facebook was initially designed for networking as opposed to collaboration, the collaborative tools found in its group feature are rudimentary.  Only a small space for user instructions is available, thus making it difficult to educate users on how to use the group’s page.  In a study conducted by Meishar-Tal et al (2012), the number one struggle reported by students while using Facebook groups was “difficulty in locating old items and orientation problems (39%)” (p. 43).  Additionally, Facebook groups do not offer any assessment or learner analytic tools, making collecting student participation data a challenge for instructors and distance education institutions (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, p. 37).

Students, faculty, and institutions may also have privacy concerns regarding utilizing Facebook.  Facebook requires users to have a Facebook account to participate in a Facebook group.  Some students and faculty may already be using Facebook privately to connect with friends and family.  Therefore, it is possible that institutions may receive some opposition from students and faculty who do not want to join Faceboook or “prefer a separation between learning space and social space” (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, pp. 36-38).  All content posted in Facebook is owned by Facebook, and it may share or archive data according to its policies (Meishar-Tal et al, 2012, p. 36).  If an institution decides to implement a student community using Facebook, it may be advisable for them to periodically take snap shots or downloads to preserve the interaction for their own record keeping purposes.

Examples of Success Outside of Academia

The 100/100 Paddle Challenge and Back of the Pack Chattajack (BOP) are online stand up paddling communities that unite their members by directing them to complete a monumental challenge. In the 100/100 Paddle Challenge, members have committed themselves to paddling 100 miles in 100 consecutive days.  BOP is an online community for ordinary paddlers to train and compete in a 31 mile race along the Chattanooga River called the Chattajack 31.  As participants work towards completing their challenge, they post their progress on the Facebook wall of their group.  Other group members will then enthusiastically respond to their posts with words of encouragement and congratulations.

This virtual cheerleading is effective in motivating participants in two ways.  First, the comments confirm to participants that the group members are paying attention to their progress, thus giving them a feeling of accountability that the community wants them to finish their goal.  Second, the comments give the participants positive reinforcement and a feeling of belonging to a larger paddling community.  Both groups have enjoyed significant increases in membership and participation since their founding this year (Nicholls, 2014)(Hodges, 2014).  The success of these groups suggests that there is potential for using Facebook groups to create community among learners in other distance education scenarios.


There is great potential for using Facebook groups to give distance learners a sense of community.  Facebook’s features are built to encourage interaction.  This continual interaction is critical for the survival of online communities (Butler et al, 2014, p 700).  Instructors may also consider encouraging virtual cheerleading among students in Facebook groups as a way to further encourage student engagement and motivation.



Brindley, J. E. (1995). Learner services: Theory and practice, Distansutbildning i itveckling, Rapport nr. 11 (pp. 23-34). Umea, Sweden: University of Umea.

Butler, B. S., Bateman, P. J., Gray, P. H., & Diamant, E. (2014). An attraction-selection-attrition theory of online community size and resilience. MIS Quarterly, 38(3), 699-728. Retrieved from

Hodges, D. (2014, March 6). Back of the Pack Chattajack [Facebook Group].  Retrieved from

LaPadula, M. (2003). A comprehensive look at online student support services. American Journal of Distance Education, 17(2), 119-128.  Retrieved from

Meishar-Tal, H., Kurtz, G., & Pieterse, E. (2012). Facebook groups as LMS: A case study. International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 13(4), 33-48.  Retrieved from

Moore, R. (2014). Importance of developing community in distance education courses. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 58(2), 20-24. doi: 10.1007/s11528-014-0733-x

Nicholls, J. (2014, January 18). 100/100 Paddle Challenge [Facebook Group]. Retrieved from

Poellhuber, B., & Anderson, T. (2011). Distance students’ readiness for social media and collaboration. International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 12(6), 102-125.  Retrieved through

Wang Q, Lit Woo H, Lang Quek C, Yang Y, Liu M. Using the Facebook group as a learning management system: An exploratory study. British Journal Of Educational Technology [serial online]. May 2012;43(3):428-438. Available from: Education Research Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed September 29, 2014.  doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01195.x


Distance education is a powerful branch of formalized learning that utilizes technology to connect students and instructors who are geographically separated.  This technology includes readily accessible communication tools, as well as resourceful and innovative strategies to integrate lessons into students’ daily lives.

The success of distance education is reliant upon student retention and engagement.  Programs are designed to share information with students, and the transfer and building of knowledge requires student participation.

My name is Cheryl Williams and I am studying distance education at University of Maryland University College (UMUC).  While researching into student attrition, I was reminded of my experiences in traditional education where peer and community support helped me to succeed in my classwork.  The purpose of this blog is explore the use of communities to unite learners and encourage retention.